Google aims to be your universal translator

The latest Google Translate uses your phone's camera to read foreign street signs -- even when offline.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Google's new translate app. One step closer to a universal translator? Google

Google is beaming a bit closer to Star Trek's universal translator with the newest edition of its Translate app.

Rolling out over the next few days for iOS and Android users, the latest version of Google Translate offers two key features -- the ability to instantly converse with someone speaking in a different language and the capability to translate street signs and other images into your native language.

Both features have been available in the Android app to some extent. For example, Google Translate for Android has long offered real-time translation of conversations. But Google's goal behind the latest version of the app is to enhance and simplify the features so they work more quickly and fluidly without any lag time.

As Google Translate product lead Barak Turovsky wrote in a blog posted on Wednesday: "When talking with someone in an unfamiliar language, conversations can... get... realllllllly... sloowwww."

The latest version of Google Translate aims to change that. To converse with someone speaking in a different language, a user chooses his language and that of the other speaker. He then taps the microphone icon in the app, starts speaking in his native or selected language, and then taps the mic icon again. The app will recognize which of the two languages is being spoken, and then the two speakers can carry on their conversation without having to keep tapping the mic.

In a test of the app's instant translation, The New York Times said it did prove to be a step forward; though, it's not science fiction just yet. The app fared best with short sentences that didn't include jargon, and it worked better when the users paused between each translation.

Google also has beefed up the app's ability to translate street signs. Previously, you'd have to take a photo of the foreign text to get a translation of it. Now, you simply point your camera at the sign and the translated text appears overlaid on your screen -- even if you're not connected to the Internet. This feature is made possible courtesy of Quest Visual's Word Lens app for iOS and Android, which Google acquired when it purchased the company last May.

This feature supports English translated to and from French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. Google says it's working to add more languages.

As of early Wednesday, the updated app had not appeared in the App Store or Google Play. Google promises that it will pop up over the next few days. This also will be the first time the iOS version will be equipped with both the conversation mode and the camera translations.

"More than 500 million people use Google Translate every month, making more than 1 billion translations a day to more easily communicate and access information across languages," Turovsky said. "Today's updates take us one step closer to turning your phone into an universal translator and to a world where language is no longer a barrier to discovering information or connecting with each other."

Microsoft also is delving into the area of automated translation with the latest preview version of Skype Translator. The new version will be able to translate conversations and, ultimately, instant messages in near-real time. Initially Microsoft is aiming the latest edition only at Windows 8.1 PCs and tablets and only in Spanish and English, so it won't offer the depth of Google Translate. But Microsoft plans to expand Skype Translate to other devices and platforms over time.